Welcome to the ultimate test of the Houston Rockets‘ microball style.
The tallest Rockets’ starter is 6’6″ and no player in their rotation is taller than 6’8″. LeBron James is 6’9″ and Anthony Davis is 6’10”. Across the board, the Lakers are a big team with five players in their rotation taller than 6’8″ — and these are not stiffs. These are athletic and dynamic players.
Starting Friday night in Game 1, Houston is out to prove the old basketball adage “tall and good beats small and good” no longer holds water in the modern NBA. James Harden is out to prove he can lead a team to victory in a big series, seeking redemption for a list of playoff shortfalls. If Mike D’Antoni is going to be back as Houston’s coach next season, it will be because his team beat Los Angeles. There is a lot on the line for Houston in this series, but it is an uphill climb against LeBron and the best team in the West this season.
For the Rockets to beat the Los Angeles Lakers, these three things have to come together.
1) Houston must make it rain threes and count on the math.
Houston’s underlying plan is simple: 3>2.
The Rockets averaged 51 threes a game in the first round against the Thunder. Expect that to go up against the Lakers.
Houston is going to bank on the math: Take 20 more threes a game than the Lakers, hit enough of them, and Houston can outscore the Lakers. Los Angeles is a big team that lives in the paint — 52.8 points a game this season, second-best in the league — and can be expected to attack the rim hard against an undersized Houston defense. The Rockets are just willing to trade threes for twos.
That’s the idea, anyway. The reality is the Rockets shot 34.5% from three during the regular season, bottom 10 in the league. They improved to 35.9% against the Thunder, but that is still fourth worst of the playoff teams (just ahead of the Lakers at 34.3%).
Houston has not only to take a lot of threes, they have to make them at a better clip. Get hot from deep and the Rockets can outscore the Lakers for a game. Can they do that four times in seven games is the real question.
2) Russell Westbrook has to go off.
James Harden is the Rockets best player and he needs to have a redemption-worthy series for Houston to have a chance. He’s a league MVP but has been up-and-down in the playoffs — with more memorable downs than ups. We don’t remember the big shots last playoffs, we remember the two ugly turnovers in the final minutes against the Warriors in Game 6. Harden’s block of Luguentz Dort to advance out of the first round will slide out of our memories if Harden struggles against a very good Lakers’ defense. Houston’s chances in this series start with Harden being a force of nature, draining stepback threes, and looking like a vintage version of his MVP self.
That alone will not be enough.
Houston needs Russell Westbrook — who missed the first five games against Oklahoma City with a quad injury and did not look right in the games he did play, with a dreadful 43.3 true shooting percentage — to show up in his MVP form. Houston needs to Westbrook to go off and balance out the offense, both to get buckets but also not let the Lakers load up on Harden and other shooters.
Rockets’ backers will point to a game in February. Just days after the Clint Capela trade that committed Houston to going small, the Rockets beat the Lakers and Westbrook had a monster night — 41 points on 17-of-28 shooting.
Westbrook needs to be able to replicate that against a more focused Lakers’ defense (likely with Anthony Davis on him for long stretches). He needs to be the guy who gets to the rim or hits a midrange to balance out the barrage of threes. Around him and Harden, the Rockets need Eric Gordon, Jeff Green, Robert Covington, and everyone else to drain threes. Houston must have all its weapons firing to have a chance
3) Find a way to slow Anthony Davis.
LeBron is the Lakers’ MVP and best player, but for Houston Anthony Davis is the matchup nightmare.
He’s the best big man in the game right now, able post up and punish a switch, set a pick and pop out for a three, or isolate on the wing and show off his handles attacking the rim. Davis averaged 29.8 points a game in the first round, on 57.3% shooting. Davis is a complete player in a package four inches taller than any Rockets’ starter. He is capable of taking over this series.
Expect the Lakers to “match” the Rockets by playing Davis a lot at center, then bringing in a red-hot Kyle Kuzma to get more run.
Houston has to slow Davis down and make him work for his buckets, the Rockets can’t let the Lakers use him at center and beat them at their own game. Rockets’ supporters can note Davis did go off in that February Houston win and was still -4 for the game, but that is probably not sustainable. Plus, today’s Davis is playing better than that one. On both ends.
The Lakers’ size and versatility allows them to force the switches they want then punish that defender. LeBron is a master of it. Kuzma has become more of a nightmare in the bubble and is playing the best basketball of his career. Houston has played its best defense in years in the bubble, but the level of difficulty is about to make a huge leap forward — can the Rockets get stops when they need it?
Then the Rockets need to bank on the math that 3>2.